San Francisco has been obsessed with Japanese food for quite some time now — with sushi, of course, but also with izakaya, a craving that arguably began with Nombe, back in 2010. That was soon followed by the 2013 ramen rage that has yet to let up. And there are now more ultra-expensive omakase restaurants in the city than there are McDonald’s. Oh yes and San Francisco recently spawned the world’s first “experiential showroom” for Japan’s most groundbreaking Toto Washlet’s new showroom touting its $5,000 heated toilets with heated seats. And yet, for some reason, the joy of a Japanese breakfast has yet to become a local craze.
Which is why, on a cold, wet weekday morning at Cassava, at the far western end of Balboa Street, I had my pick of empty tables before a few solo regulars sauntered in. Everyone was there for the same thing: the pretty, puzzle-like, Kaiseki-style assemblage, comprising a steaming-hot covered bowl of soothing miso soup with chewy slabs of kombu; another palm-sized bowl with a gently poached egg swimming in a dashi broth; yet another bowl brimming with light and fluffy koshihikari rice; a small plate of broiled rock cod; plus three mini saucers bearing kimchi, pickled daikon, and the fermented salty-gooey soybeans known as natto, if you so choose. (I so chose, and realized it was an acquired taste I hadn’t yet acquired.)
Slurping our soothing soup, as the rain pelted down, it felt like we were a small club of strangers: San Franciscans in on the secret that a Japanese breakfast is a better start to the day than an American one.
Co-owner Yuka Ioroi runs the front of house. Her husband, chef-owner Kris Toliao, commands the small exposed kitchen. He staged at Kikunoi, a then two-Michelin-starred restaurant in Tokyo, and later opened Luce with Dominique Crenn. They offer the requisite San Francisco breakfast stuff, too. But, midweek at least, they needn’t bother. No one I witnessed that rainy morning was eating anything other than Japanese breakfast.
Moreover, my friend’s toasted croissant was oozing with harissa aioli and crammed with so many slices of pork shoulder, it was like the non-kosher version of Katz’s Deli’s meat tower: a little too much. Especially compared to my civilized, almost-like-in-Kyoto tray. The avocado toast was avocado toast, overwhelmed by more of the same harissa aioli.
On weekends, brunchgoers wait for all of this and more, including meatballs and tofu in a curried tomato-cream sauce and a doughy, crisp Liege waffle with house-made preserves. But I wouldn’t. I gave up sidewalk swarming for eggs — even runny, sweet, sous vide, poached-in-the-shell ones — after I once tried and failed to do so with a newborn (sunny Saturday; the Mission; 1.5-hour wait; baby wailing; once finally seated, diaper leaks on lap). Now, with or without my kids, I’m all about the brunch reservation. Attention everyone wasting away your Saturday: Cassava takes them.
And I would certainly go for lunch. (Well, if I were blowing off work and meeting a friend who lived in the outer avenues and we paired it with a stroll on the beach or something.)
I’d also most definitely reserve a table for dinner. There was nothing especially Japanese about the meal, other than the quiet warmth and attentiveness from Ioroi upon arrival and our right-on-time seating. Cassava was “inspired by the great cafes of France,” the owners explained in their 2013 Kickstarter campaign, which raised more than $30,000. They used the funds to triple seating and add a heated sidewalk patio with a small edible garden.
The dinner menu is in sync with its atmosphere: calming and homey, start to finish, from the seeded Marla Bakery bread with sweet honey butter to the thick-crisp fried chicken starter made with boneless, buttermilk-marinated thigh meat to a rich black garbanzo bean stew with bacon and chanterelles.
My premeditated entree order instantly changed when I glanced over at the next table and spied a plate heaped with perfectly charred hunks of rosy-rare hanger steak, multicolored marble potatoes, and freshly plucked leaves of Bloomsdale spinach. (Apologies to the Mount Lassen trout I let go.)
Glitches were few but glaring. Like the soft-talking server who seemed better suited to Tassajara monastery than waiting tables. He responded to my question about a particular red wine with a “Well, I don’t drink.” (Okay, thank you.) A wedge of pickled mackerel was unctuous and outstanding, but came flanked, oddly, by a mound of cultured butter churned in house. “Should we spread the butter on the fish?” we asked our server. “You could,” he replied, apparently equally confused by its presence.
And despite the initial outpouring of attention, mid-meal we felt ignored. Eventually, my friend had no choice but to raise her hand — and keep it raised like an eager fourth grader — until our monk eventually came over and welcomed her question: “May we have some salt, please?” Most entrees needed it, especially the quinoa porridge with meaty chanterelles and poached egg. The slow-braised short ribs did too. Though the meat fell off the bone, as it should, it lacked flavor. It looked like short ribs, and had the texture of short ribs, but tasted, somehow, like… nothing.
Dessert, on the other hand, was like a creamy cloud. I’ve never been much of a panna cotta fan, though I’ll take it over flan any day. It’s a texture thing — both are typically too jiggly and Jell-O-y for my tastes. But Cassava’s blood-orange panna cotta — served in a ceramic bowl, and topped with curls of candied peels and a lone raspberry — convinced me of its potential. As we scraped the last of it, a friend and Outer Richmond neighbor, who’d donated to Cassava’s Kickstarter campaign, wandered in with her book for dinner at the low-slung counter. “Next time, you have to get the dark-chocolate mousse,” she advised.
“Will do,” I replied.
“Let me know,” she said. “I’m here all the time.”
I would be too if I lived nearby. Rare is a neighborhood restaurant, or any restaurant, that excels at one meal a day, let alone three. Not to mention, there’s a ridiculously reasonable $42-per-person prix fixe that pulls from the menu’s stars, including the hanger steak and panna cotta.
From LA to Soho to Sacramento Street, the all-day cafe has become a thing as of late — chic spots where you can plug in and peck away from dawn to dusk. Cassava is not that. It’s a real restaurant with an unfussy kitchen and a round-the-clock following. And it’s not in a hotel with a built-in clientele, or downtown with guaranteed foot traffic, or at San Francisco International Airport with a steady stream of travelers. It’s way out on 36th Avenue, far from the frenzy of the Mission or the shine of the Marina, across from a dentist office and an optometrist office. And bonus: It is a block or two from the old-school Balboa Theatre.
It is peaceful and powder blue, with walled-in windows and a baffling number of off-season wreaths and not a single bar of Wi-Fi. Which is to say, Cassava is neither trendy nor convenient — and that’s exactly what I like about it. Serve good food, and it doesn’t need to be.